Most companies think that any satisfied customer is a good reference customer. But the truth is very different, and companies have lost deals because they don't understand what's going on or how to select a good reference. So just what does distinguish a good reference from a bad one?
Before we talk about your company, think about your own personal experience. Have you ever recommended a product passionately to a friend? I have a friend named Tim who asks me for advice all the time. But Tim doesn't just take my advice. He asks me about why I make my choices.
He probes my use cases, and if they don't exactly line up with what he's doing, he doesn't give my reference much credence.
Tim's approach is a bit intense for consumer purchases, but it reflects well what I hear from B2B buyers every day. Your buyers are looking for someone exactly like them. They can do a small amount of translation, but if your reference customers are too different than your buyer, the referral has low value.
To understand why this is, back up a minute and think about why your buyers are asking for reference customers. What they want to do is take the risk out of their purchase. If they make a mistake in this purchase, it will likely reflect badly on them for many years to come. Perhaps worse yet, if something goes wrong with your product, they will likely be stuck fixing it.
So they are looking for someone who has done exactly what they want to do. In fact they'd like to talk with 3, 4, or 5 people exactly like them.
"Exactly" means having the same starting place, the same maturity as a company, with the same challenges and the same goals. Companies assume that buyers in the same vertical market segments will be similar, so they save their banking references for other buyers in banking. But while vertical market can play a role (and often does), I see too little care being given to the other factors. If I am a banker, I probably want to talk with a banker. But investment bankers are different than wholesale bankers. And Wells Fargo is way different than a community bank. For that matter, Wells is way different than BofA! The culture is completely different. For some situations, Wells might rather speak with Walgreens, as the companies have cultural similarities.
Your buyer wants something specific: They want someone exactly like them. Anything else becomes at best irrelevant, or at worst a negative reflection on your product.